One of Nashville’s most popular events is the annual Living History Tour each fall at City Cemetery. Visitors see the past come alive as costumed characters step forward from the gravestones to tell their stories. Although a few beloved personalities from Nashville’s history do reappear from time to time, the Nashville City Cemetery Association (NCCA) selects many new characters each year. The individuals named below were featured in the 2013 Tour. The photos of reenactors were taken during NCCA Living History Tours between 2008 and 2012.
Lipscomb Norvell, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, served under General George Washington at Brandywine, Trenton, and Monmouth. An early pioneer, he raised a large family in Kentucky before joining family members in Nashville, where he died at age 87.
Frank Parrish, a free man of color, was a Nashville entrepreneur, operating a Bathing House and Barber Shop on Deaderick Street. He died in 1867 and was buried in a family plot at City Cemetery.
William Carroll Napierowned a Nashville livery stable. His son James carried Mayor Cheatham to surrender Nashville to Union forces in 1862. Later the two Napiers helped John Berrien Lindsley set up military hospitals around the city by transporting food equipment and supplies. During the Occupation, the Union Army employed Carroll as a spy, tasked with reporting Confederate troop movements in Murfreesboro and along the Harpeth River. Son James C. Napier would later become Nashville’s African American city councilor, as well as Register of the U.S. Treasury under President Taft.
George W. Campbell, one of Nashville’s most distinguished citizens, was an attorney, a U.S. Representative and Senator, one of the first two Tennessee Supreme Court Justices, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, and U.S. Ambassador to Russia. His wife Harriet Stoddert was the daughter of the secretary of the Navy in Thomas Jefferson’s cabinet. In 1843 Campbell sold a property known as “Campbell’s Hill” to the city of Nashville, later transferred to the state as the site of the Tennessee state capitol.
Mabel Lewis Imes was raised in New England, where she received an excellent education, learned to speak French, and took voice lessons. When she auditioned for the Fisk Jubilee Singers during their Eastern tour, they immediately invited her to sing contralto with the group . . . at the age of 13!
Thomas Crutcherserved as the State Treasurer of Tennessee for 25 years. An activist in promoting education for women, he was a founder and active trustee of the Nashville Female Academy, where the students called him “Uncle Crutcher.”
Lizzie Porterfield Elliottwas the daughter of Collins D. Elliott, president of the Nashville Female Academy, and she was perhaps the most compelling example of his belief in educating women. She taught in both public and private schools for more than 30 years and was active in educational and civic organizations. An authority on Tennessee history, she served as an officer in the Tennessee Historical Society. A bright and interesting woman, she authored the Early History of Nashville, still admired for its historical accuracy.
Before the section of the city north of the Cumberland River was known as Edgefield (and then East Nashville), it was referred to as Wetmore’s Addition. Moses Wetmore, the first person to subdivide the area into lots for homes and businesses, also donated the land for Holy Trinity Church and gave his name to two city streets.
Mayor John Patton Erwin served two terms as mayor of Nashville. He worked as a bank cashier (in those days, the equivalent of a bank manager), was editor of the Nashville Whig, and served as Postmaster, Justice of the Peace, and clerk of the Tennessee House of Representatives.
PowhatanMaxey served as a justice of the peace, an alderman for seven terms, and mayor of Nashville from 1843-1845. He negotiated the purchase of Capitol Hill from William Nichol and George W. Campbell, and then donated the land to the Tennessee General Assembly, provided they would locate the State Capitol on that site. (2013)
Previously published in Monuments & Milestones, the Nashville City Cemetery Newsletter.
The tales of political and military leaders abound at City Cemetery – these influential citizens are often the focus of our research and knowledge. However, beyond the public and civic life of Nashville, private stories show us another more personal life of love and devotion, loss and memory.
Two married couples may be found on the Foster family plot in section 29.2. The more famous pair is Ann Robertson Johnston and John Cockrill, who fell in love as they traveled with John Donelson’s party on the flatboat flotilla bringing settlers to Nashville in 1780. Ann, the widowed mother of three little girls, and bachelor John Cockrill were both 23 years old when they were married at Fort Nashborough, where Ann’s brother, James Robertson performed the ceremony. Despite the threat of Indian attacks, everyone celebrated the wedding on that spring day with feasting, dancing, fiddling, and bear meat. Both Ann and John received land preemptions, and they settled where Centennial Park stands today. The parents of eight children, they enjoyed a long life together. Ann died in 1821 at 64 years of age; John lived until 1837. They were originally buried near their home, but due to encroaching development, they were brought together to City Cemetery in the early 20th century.
Ann S. Hubbard Foster and her husband Robert C. rest nearby. They had been married 51 years, 6 months, and 12 days when he died in 1844. His vault was reopened when Ann died in 1850, so that the couple could be buried together as she had wished.
True love sometimes needs a helping hand, as Margaret Nichol discovered when she fell in love with Robert Armstrong, an aide-de-camp to Andrew Jackson. Her wealthy banker father, Josiah Nichol, forbade their marriage, insisting that the life of a soldier’s wife was not what he and Margaret’s mother wanted for their daughter. Not to be denied, Margaret and Robert eloped in 1814, asking for help from the couple they knew would be on their side: Rachel and Andrew Jackson. At the Hermitage, where the future president and his wife were still living in a log cabin, Old Hickory took command, sending for a pastor to perform the marriage and writing to the bride’s father. Jackson reminded Nichol of their own “lack of fortune” when they first came to Nashville together, and vouched for Armstrong’s character. He encouraged smiles, tranquility, and acceptance of the marriage . . . and then invited everyone to a festive dinner party at the cabin.
Two of Nashville’s prominent architects designed monuments at City Cemetery. Adolphus Heiman, just beginning his career in Nashville, carved the marker for Nancy Bailey Maynor in 1836. She and her husband, painter Pleasant Maynor, had been married only eight years. Heiman marked the stone with a butterfly, symbolizing a brief, beautiful life.
Grieving husband John W. Walker commissioned William Strickland to design a monument for his 28-year-old wife, Sarah Ann Gray. Strickland described the monument as “very elegant . . . constructed of pure white marble from Baltimore . . .. The lachrymal vase is an exact copy of vases found in the ruins of Pompeii.” It was completed in July 1846.
These stories remind us of the importance of recording the inscriptions and caring for the tombstones of City Cemetery. Without these markers, much of what we know about these people would be lost. The purpose of the monuments, as created by those left behind, was to ensure that their loved ones would always be remembered. Our care of the cemetery keeps that hope alive. (2008)
Previously published in Monuments & Milestones, the Nashville City Cemetery newsletter.
Primary Source Document, transcribed by Mike Slate.
Yesteryear’s folding booklets of postcards sometimes included a few paragraphs about the featured state or city. The text below, which reads as though it might have been prepared by the local Chamber of Commerce, came from a booklet of postcards published by S. H. Kress & Co. and is hand-dated September 15, 1924. Ephemera like this can often provide both interesting data and thought-provoking interpretive possibilities.
Nashville is the Capital City of Tennessee, and the County Seat of Davidson County.
Four railroads serve the city. Forty-four passenger and sixty-eight freight trains arrive in Nashville daily.
The Cumberland River is navigable 210 miles down the river practically the year round and 352 miles up the river for about six months, and the work of installing new locks and dams will increase this practically to ten months each year. Nashville has seven bridges across the Cumberland River.
There are 22 parks and playgrounds, containing 468 acres. Centennial Park has the only replica of the Parthenon in the world. Shelby Park has a nine-hole municipal golf course. The Vanderbilt Stadium seats 22,000 people, and is the largest athletic field in the South. Nashville’s water supply is pure and inexhaustible, with more than 50,000,000-gallon capacity daily. The Tennessee State Fair, one of the largest expositions in the South, is held in Nashville each year. The Public Auditorium has a seating capacity of 5,000 persons.
Vanderbilt University, with assets of $11,000,000, has entrance requirements and a curriculum equal to any university in the United States, and has drawn students from every state in the Union and from eight foreign countries. It has an endowment of $6,850,000. The medical department has an endowment of $3,500,000, and is erecting the most complete medical school in the South and one of the finest in America.
The only Y.M.C.A. College in the South is located in Nashville.
Three institutions for women, Ward-Belmont, St. Bernard Academy, and St. Cecilia, draw students from practically every state in the Union. Ward-Belmont alone has over 600 non-resident students.
The Southeastern School of Printing has $80,000 worth of equipment, and is the only school of its kind in the South.
George Peabody College for Teachers, with an investment of $4,000,000 and 20 departments, is the only teachers’ college in the South, and the second largest in the United States. It has an endowment of $2,500,000, and in 1922-23 had an enrollment representing 36 states and 5 foreign countries.
It leads all other cities in the South in livestock, butter, poultry, grinding of wheat, eggs, and various agricultural products.
The mean annual temperature is 60 degrees; the average summer temperature is 78 degrees; and average winter temperature is 41 degrees.
The average annual rainfall is 47.2 inches, humidity moderate, and no sunstrokes are recorded.
Nashville has more than 500 manufacturing enterprises, makes more self-rising flour than any city in the world (“Goodness gracious, it’s good!”), and is one of the two largest hardwood flooring markets in the world. Its annual hardwood flooring output would pave an automobile boulevard 10 feet wide from Nashville to New York. Over 35,000,000 pounds of green coffee are roasted annually.
The Hermitage, the home of Andrew Jackson, is located near Nashville, and is one of the show grounds of America.
Three Presidents of the United States, Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk, and Andrew Johnson, have lived in Nashville. Jackson is buried at the Hermitage and Polk on the grounds of the historic State Capitol.
William Walker, the “Grey-eyed Man of Destiny,” the most famous of all American filibusters, was born and reared in Nashville. Walker became president of Nicaragua and raised the blood-red five-point star of the United States of Central America, but he failed in his plans and was shot by a firing squad. (1997)
Nashville began to attract streams of visitors almost from the moment it became a frontier trading post. As time passed, tourists and settlers came for the music and theatre and food, for history and politics and education, for the casual atmosphere and friendly people. It was educator Philip Lindsley (1785-1855) who first referred to Nashville as the “Athens of the South” (Philip actually said “Southwest”), for the city has long been a center of educational and cultural activities. And high on the list of attractions is the intriguing variety of architectural styles to be discovered here.
One’s first impression of Nashville, the downtown skyline, features the “Batman” and “R2-D2” building silhouettes, several tall hotels and banks, and the dear old L&C Tower, whose 31 floors made it, at the time of its 1957 opening, the “tallest commercial structure of its day in the Southeastern United States.”1 Church Street and Broadway feature some of our most interesting church buildings: the First Baptist Church; Christ Church Episcopal; McKendree Methodist, its earlier façades buried beneath layers of renovations; Downtown (First) Presbyterian with its rich and compelling history; and, a little farther out, the graceful Holy Trinity Episcopal Church on Sixth Avenue.
Many tourists come to Nashville specifically to visit historic homes, and the city has a lovely collection of these as well: The Hermitage, fourth most-visited Presidential home in America (after the White House, Mount Vernon, and Monticello); Belmont, former home of one of the country’s richest women, and now the centerpiece of the Belmont University campus; Belle Meade and Travellers Rest, renowned for the breeding of magnificent horses; Cheekwood, with its exquisite gardens and galleries; and the wedding-cake charm of Clover Bottom and Two Rivers. Equally unforgettable are the stand-alone architectural delights of the Tennessee State Capitol, the Customs House, Union Station, Ryman Auditorium, and the splendid Parthenon, the crowning glory of Centennial Park and the only full-scale replica of the ancient Athenian temple in the world.
Yet if we could visit the Nashville of earlier days, we would be astonished, not only at the number of public buildings that have been transformed into more modern spaces, but also at the number that have disappeared forever.
Not all the stories have tragic endings, of course. Union Station was saved from impending destruction a few years ago, as was the Ryman. Moreover, the Metropolitan Historical Commission encourages preservation activities by presenting a number of awards each year to individuals and groups who have rescued and restored public or private structures throughout the city. But the very word “progress” conjures up an image of bulldozers, and Nashville, like many American cities, has seen far too many beautiful buildings destroyed to make room for, among other things, motels and parking lots!
One of the city’s loveliest lost buildings was the Second Presbyterian Church, once part of our riverfront skyline, but now only a fading image in a handful of old photos. The church stood on Third and Gay Streets, not far from the spot where the James Robertson Parkway crosses Third Avenue before swooping across Victory Memorial Bridge. Dr. John Todd Edgar and Dr. Philip Lindsley spoke at the church’s 1844 dedication.2
There are significant differences of opinion about the history of “2nd Pres,” as John Berrien Lindsley called it in his 1859 diary.3 Many Nashvillians believe that William Strickland, architect of the Capitol, designed the church. However, according to James Patrick, author of Architecture in Tennessee, 1768-1897, the architect was James M. Hughes, a man the Nashville City Directory lists as a carpenter.4 Patrick refers to a silver plate deposited in the cornerstone of the church naming Hughes as the architect. In 1844 the Nashville Whig listed the full text of the inscription:
The Second Presbyterian Church of Nashville, OLD SCHOOL. erected in the year of our lord 1844. Rev. Robert A. Lapsley, Pastor. Samuel Seay, William B. Shapard, William H Marquess, James M. Hamilton, and Adam G. Adams, Elders. Samuel Hill, Foster Williams, Abram Stevens, and John McCrea – Deacons. Organized February, 1844, with 32 Members. JOHN TYLER, President of the United States. James C. Jones, Governor of Tenn. P.W. Maxey, Mayor of Nashville. Population of Nashville, 8,000. James M. Hughes, Architect. Engraved by D. Adams.5
Adding further weight to Patrick’s assertion, Nell Savage Mahoney, a lifelong student of Strickland’s work, omits Second Presbyterian from her list of his creations.
Support for Strickland’s involvement, however, may be found in “William Strickland, Architect,” a 1986 article from the Tennessee Historical Quarterly. Author James A. Hoobler, Curator of the Capitol, compares the altar area of the Second Presbyterian Church with a Strickland drawing labeled “Second Presbyterian.” 6 The structural similarities of shape and dimension cannot be denied. (Hoobler has also discovered compelling evidence that St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, long attributed to William Strickland, was, in fact, built by Adolphus Heiman, but that’s a story for another day.)
Actually, a fairly strong case can be made for the possibility of a collaboration between the two men, with Strickland as teacher/adviser and Hughes as apprentice/contractor. Mahoney herself provides evidence of an earlier such alliance between Strickland and one of his students. Strickland is believed to have drawn the original elevation used by his former pupil Thomas U. Walter when the younger man was appointed to design a building for the Girard College campus in Philadelphia.7
Further evidence of a Strickland-Hughes partnership comes from Circuit Court records, January term 1857. Strickland had been engaged by H.R.W. Hill “to serve as an architect for and superintend the erection of a Methodist church [in New Orleans] . . .. William [Strickland] was put to great expense in going to and from said city during the progress of said work . . .. The church was built at the same time that the St. Charles Hotel was erected – both the St. Charles and the Methodist Church on Pozdras street were burned in February, 1850 . . .. Strickland and Hughes were here at the time, as this witness learned from Hughes, to get a contract for [re]building the St. Charles.”8
So even finding James Hughes’ name inside the cornerstone does not rule out the possibility that the original drawings for Second Presbyterian came from Strickland.
Newcomers may wonder why William Strickland’s buildings are so valuable. In fact, many people consider them national treasures – Strickland is widely considered to be one of the most influential architects of the nineteenth century. Prior to his move to Nashville, he built so many notable buildings in Philadelphia, he was sometimes called “the city architect.”9 Among his important designs there are the Second Bank of the United States (His best-known portrait places him in front of the Bank, which strongly resembles the Parthenon.); the Merchants Exchange; St. Stephen’s Church; Masonic Hall; and dozens more. In Nashville Strickland contributed to the design and re-design of many private homes, burial monuments, and a wide variety of public buildings. Best known, however, are the Downtown (First) Presbyterian Church – now widely considered America’s finest surviving example of church architecture in the Egyptian Revival style – and his masterpiece, the Tennessee State Capitol. Many of Strickland’s buildings have been designated National Historic Landmarks.
In 1902, convinced that the neighborhood was becoming too commercial, the Second Presbyterian congregation sold the building and relocated to North Nashville, moving again in 1929 to better oversee the Monroe-Harding Children’s Home in Green Hills.10 They left behind not only the classical simplicity of the building’s exterior, but also the beautiful interior, which included a painted fresco behind the altar suggesting a classical porch with a view of distant hills, and a network of intricate trompe l’oeil panels and columns adorning the ceiling and walls. For many years thereafter, the original building – described at the time of its dedication as a “new and beautiful edifice . . . an ornament to that part of the city”11 – was used by the Standard Candy Company as a warehouse.12
By the late 1970s the church building had become the property of Metro Nashville. The city’s plans to build a new Criminal Justice Center involved razing the old church and other nearby structures. Although preservation advocates from the Metropolitan Historical Commission and the Tennessee State Museum pleaded with city officials to be permitted at least to salvage significant architectural elements from the building, their requests were denied.13 In 1979 Nashville’s historic Second Presbyterian Church was bulldozed into rubble in order to provide a handful of parking spaces for the Criminal Justice Center.
1 Zepp, George. “Nashville L&C Tower once offered bird’s-eye view of Nashville,environs,” Nashville Tennessean, 16 Feb 2005.
2 Nashville Whig, April 27, 1844.
3 Lindsley Family Papers, ca. 1600-ca. 1940. Tennessee State Library and Archives.
4 Patrick, James. Architecture in Tennessee, 1768-1897. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1981.
5 Nashville Whig, April 27, 1844.
6 Hoobler, James A. “William Strickland, Architect,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly, Spring 1986.7 Mahoney, Nell Savage (1889-1986) Papers, 1825-1972. THS Acc. No. 457 & 681. Tennessee State Library and Archives.
12 Hoobler, James A. A Guide to Historic Nashville, Tennessee. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2008.
13 Hoobler, James A. A Guide to Historic Nashville, Tennessee.
This article was first published in The Nashville Retrospect. We thank publisher Allen Forkum for his permission to republish it here. Much gratitude also to Jim Hoobler, Cathi Carmack, Lori Lockhart, and Mike Slate for helping me untangle the knotted threads of this story. KBL
Back in the boom years of the 1920s when Prohibition was the law of the land, it was impossible to have a real cocktail party legally. The liquor had to be bought from a bootlegger, and there was always the chance that it might be contaminated with an additive that could cause serious problems of a neurological nature. One possible result was called “jake leg” or “iron foot” because of the way the victim staggered along looking as if he’d had a stroke.
However, knowledgeable Nashvillians had a way to protect themselves from unintentionally poisoning their guests – or themselves – with bad whiskey. A cheap insurance policy came in the form of an old sot who hung around on West End or Elliston Place in the Vanderbilt area. This fellow would drink anything that had alcohol in it, and he had turned his unique talent into a source of income. For fifty cents or a dollar, he would taste a sample of your bootleg liquor or sip from the jar of moonshine your cousin had brought in from the country. You might hope it hadn’t been distilled through an old car radiator full of lead, but you didn’t know for sure. The tester would take a few swallows and give you an opinion of the quality of your cocktail makings.
One memorable Saturday evening a well-known Nashville lawyer and his wife hosted a dinner party at their lovely Belle Meade home. The food was delicious and the bar, stocked with taste-tested Bedford County moonshine, was well-attended. These elite citizens of a much smaller Nashville, where everyone knew everyone, had a wonderful time and left in a happy mood, singing the praises of the host couple.
But the next Wednesday morning as the wife drove along West End Avenue in her big Packard automobile, she saw a most disturbing sight. The old booze tester was limping along looking for all the world as though he had a bad case of jake leg. Mrs. Lawyer panicked, found the first pay phone she could, and called her husband to tell him that they’d given their guests bad whiskey, and that he needed to get down there right away and find out what was going on.
The husband made his excuses to the client sitting in front of him – a man who had, in fact, attended the party – and raced out toward Centennial Park looking for his quarry. He found the old-timer sitting on the stone wall in front of the park rubbing his foot and looking rather feeble. A few questions quickly lifted the curtain of fear as the old boy said that he didn’t have the jake, but only a bad corn on the ball of his foot. With a sigh of relief, the lawyer handed him a quarter and sent him off to buy some corn plasters.
The lawyer immediately drove to Kensington Place where his wife waited at a friend’s home, fearing the worst. He set her mind at ease with the good news and they went on their way, a much happier couple. Still, they resolved that night never to serve corn liquor at a party again. From that day forward, they spent a few more dollars and bought the bonded blends shipped down from Canada and sold through a reputable bootlegger.
Back in the days when tent circuses travelled the land, there was a story told of an old showman being asked for his concept of the hereafter. He is said to have replied, “It must be like the circus lot in Nashville.”
To the generation who grew up here prior to WWII, the Centennial Park athletic field on 25th Avenue (where the Sportsplex is now situated) was the city’s principal circus lot. There a spacious, level, and grassy expanse welcomed the big tent circuses year after year.
The John Robinson Circus may have been the first to play this lot in 1910. Forepaugh-Sells Bros. was there in 1911. During the flamboyant years of the American circus, all the great railroad shows came to Centennial Park: Sells-Floto, Al G. Barnes, Hagenbeck-Wallace, and Cole Bros., to name a few. Barnum & Bailey and Ringling both played there prior to their unification in 1919; and the combined show then played the park most years through 1947, when the park board decided to close Centennial to circuses.
During that era, the flatcars would unload at Kayne Avenue, the wagons being pulled up Division Street to the top of the hill and then over to West End. The zebras, camels, llamas, performing horses, and any elephants not needed for pulling wagons were unloaded from stock cars at the north end of the yards and led out Charlotte to 23rd Avenue, thence to the show grounds, going in the back way.
As you came on the lot from 25th, you would enter the “midway” area where the sideshows (with its congress of strange people) and numerous concession stands would be raised. Beyond that was the main entrance to the circus, which took you first into a long menagerie tent where you could walk cage to cage and from pen to corral viewing animals from the corners of the earth. I saw my first gorilla (the famous “Gargantua”) here. The elephants might number from a dozen to forty, and it was not unusual to find giraffes, a rhino, and a hippo on display along with polar bears and other species not generally found in Nashville.
Working your way through the menagerie, you would find yourself in the big top, a mammoth canvas tent as long as a football field and seating several thousand. Here the actual circus performance took place, and it was always a good one. All the big circus stars played Centennial Park: Clyde Beatty (whom I still consider the greatest of the lion and tiger trainers), the Wallendas of the high wire, the Zacchinis with their mammoth cannon, the Riding Hannefords, and the famous sad-faced clown Emmett Kelly. Tom Mix was once here with Sells-Floto and Jack Dempsey came with Cole Bros.
But those days are over; dead and gone. Apparently more dead than I’d realized. We recently overheard an old timer telling a member of a younger generation about the circuses he’d seen at Centennial Park. The listener responded with, “Sir, you must be mistaken; there isn’t a building at Centennial Park big enough for a circus.” (1997)
April 24, 2003, marks the 223rd anniversary of the historical founding of Nashville. On that well-known date in 1780, John Donelson’s flotilla of about 30 flatboats and several pirogues completed the 1006-mile voyage via four rivers to the French Lick’s almost-completed log central station. Here the travelers joined James Robertson’s overland settlement party that had traveled into the western North Carolina frontier to cross the frozen Cumberland River on Christmas Day 1779 to establish an outpost of civilization. This two-prong settlement of Nashville was described by Theodore Roosevelt in Winning of the West as “being equal in importance to the settlement of Jamestown or the landing at Plymouth Rock.”
Not as well known is that this year also marks the 100th anniversary of the October 11, 1903, dedication of the Robertson Monument in Centennial Park. The monument’s towering 50-foot granite shaft is actually seven years older than its year of dedication, and the story of the monument’s creation in Nashville’s first public park is nearly as interesting as the Robertson pioneers it memorializes.
The monument’s existence is due to the energy, dedication, and vision of Nashville’s Major Eugene C. Lewis (1845-1917), owner of theNashville American newspaper and a consulting civil engineer. It was Lewis’ friend, local architect William C. Smith, who suggested in a late-1893 speech to Nashville’s Commercial Club that “a spectacular Tennessee Centennial be held to alleviate financial distress and to divert the attention of the people” from the long and severe depression that had engulfed America after the Panic of ’93. Before the depression, according to W. F. Creighton inBuilding of Nashville, local attorney Douglas Anderson had suggested in local newspapers that a celebration be held in Nashville to celebrate the centenary of Tennessee’s 1796 statehood. Although Anderson’s earlier suggestion had evoked favorable public response, no action was taken until Smith renewed interest in the project. The Nashville Tennessee Centennial Exposition Company was formed and by the summer of 1895 was beginning to acquire financial support for the event. John W. Thomas, president of the Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railroad, served as president of the Centennial Company and chairman of the executive committee of the Exposition, and Major E. C. Lewis was named director general. The site selected for the Exposition was the West Side Race Track and Park, located on the old fairgrounds surrounding the historic Cockrill Springs area at the end of Church Street and the terminus of the West End Avenue streetcar line. The first Tennessee State Fair had been staged on the site in 1869, with subsequent fairs held in 1873, 1879, and 1884.
The Centennial Exposition, held May 1 through October 30, 1897, was “essentially a fair on a grand scale,” wrote A. W. Crouch and H. D. Claybrook in Our Ancestors Were Engineers. Attractions included 12 large buildings featuring exhibits on the commercial, industrial, agricultural, and educational interests of the state; a “midway” including Egyptian, Cuban, and Chinese villages; a “Giant See-saw” designed by local engineer and steel fabricator Arthur J. Dyer; Venetian gondoliers on newly created Lake Watauga; a Venetian Rialto bridge designed by local architect C. A. Asmus; parades and “sham battles” by the Tennessee Militia; fireworks and other entertainment; and a 250-foot flag staff designed by E. C. Lewis. Major Lewis also had conceived the idea to create a replica of the 5th-century B. C. Athenian Parthenon to house the art exhibit, then commissioned local architect W. C. Smith to make the needed drawings. (The Parthenon, built during 1895-1897, and the city park board’s 1920 decision to have it rebuilt as a permanent structure is a story unto itself.)
Among the exhibits featured at the Exposition’s Mineral and Forestry Building was a towering, 50-foot granite shaft. The impressive monolith is attributed to the “Barry Vermont Granite Quarries” by Creighton in Building of Nashville, but Leland Johnson wrote in The Parks of Nashville that the “granite shaft was quarried at Stone Mountain, Georgia, by Venerable Brothers of Atlanta and shipped to Nashville for display during the 1897 Centennial Exposition. Oral tradition says a portion of the shaft broke off during transit to Nashville.” The shaft’s original flat-stone base remains today on the west bank of Lake Watauga and bears a metal plate commemorating the Centennial Exposition.
After the Exposition closed, all buildings except the Parthenon were torn down and removed. The success of the Exposition, as well as the progressive movement of the late 19th Century to establish public parks, planted the seed for Nashville’s park system. In 1901 Mayor James Head appointed five men, one of whom was Major E. C. Lewis, to the new Board of Park Commissioners. Negotiations were begun by the city in early 1902 with the owners of the 72-acre Centennial Park to purchase the land for a permanent city park. After months of complicated offers and counter-offers, described in The Parks of Nashville, Nashville Railway and Light Company purchased Centennial Park and its title was presented to the city park board on December 22, 1902.
On January 13, 1903, Major Lewis addressed the Tennessee Historical Society on the subject of James Robertson. He began his speech by informing the assembled members of “a fortunate circumstance that transpired only a few days ago. . . .For the first time in all its history, Nashville has park ground worthy of the Capital of Tennessee. The title to the Centennial Grounds, upon which the city has already contributed a large sum of money toward the adornment thereof, is now in the city of Nashville. The Park Commission. . .has so far determined upon but one measure, and that, the erection in Centennial Park of a monument [for] James Robertson, the founder of Nashville.” He concluded his lengthy profile of Robertson by asking, “What have we of Nashville done to honor this man’s memory? Has even the memory of all the good Robertson did been interred with his bones?. . .Are we a grateful people?”
Major Lewis had made prescient provisions to answer his own questions. When negotiations had begun to purchase the Centennial land, he purchased the 50-foot granite shaft for $200, then his fellow-commissioner Samuel A. Champion “resolved that it be erected in the park as a monument to the memory of James Robertson.” Lewis also purchased the flat-stone base for $10 in 1903 to remain beside Lake Watauga as a memorial to the Centennial Exposition. A new granite base was needed to support the heavy shaft after its relocation, but no record has yet been found of the base’s creator or its procurement. Wherever the massive base originated, Johnson described the monument’s creation in The Parks of Nashville: “With a tripod made of three large oak logs and block and tackle, Major Lewis raised the shaft into position and then constructed the foundation beneath it.” The granite shaft and its base weigh a total of 52.5 tons. Text is inscribed on a plaque on each side of the monument:
North Side Text: “James Robertson/Born in Brunswick County, Virginia, June 28, 1742. Moved to North Carolina in 1750. Came to Tennessee in 1769. Settled Nashville in 1780. Died in Tennessee Sept. 1, 1814. Reinterred in the City Cemetery at Nashville, 1825, under authority of the Tennessee Legislature.”
East Side Text: “Charlotte Reeves/Wife of James Robertson/Born in North Carolina, Jan. 2, 1751. Married to James Robertson, 1768. Died in Nashville, Jun. 11, 1843. Buried in the City Cemetery. Mother of the first male child born at Nashville. She participated in the deeds and dangers of her illustrious husband: won honors of her own and along his path of destiny cast a leading light of loyalty, intelligence, and devotion.”
South Side Text: “A worthy citizen of both Virginia and North Carolina. Pioneer, patriot, and patriarch in Tennessee. Diplomat, Indian fighter, maker of memorable history. Director of the movement of the settlers requiring that hazardous and heroic journey so successfully achieved from Watauga to the Cumberland. Founder of Nashville. Brigadier-General of the United States Army. Agent of the Government to the Chickasaw Nation. He was earnest, taciturn, self-contained, and had that quiet consciousness of power usually seen in born leaders of men. ‘He had winning ways and made no fuss.’ (Oconnostota) He had what was of value beyond price–a love of virtue, an intrepid soul, an emulous desire for honest fame. He possessed to an eminent degree the confidence, esteem, and veneration of all his contemporaries. His worth and services in peace and war are gratefully remembered. Amiable in private life, wise in council, vigilant in camp, courageous in battle, strong in adversity, generous in victory, revered in death.”
West Side Text: “James Robertson/Founder of Nashville/’We are the advance guard of civilization. Our way is across the Continent.'” Robertson—1779
The monument to James and Charlotte Reeves Robertson was presented to the city of Nashville on October 11, 1903, by Major E. C. Lewis on behalf of the Park Commission. About 100 Robertson descendants from all over the United States and one foreign country attended the ceremony in Centennial Park, according to Sarah F. Kelley in Children of Nashville. Three-year-old Dickson Wharton Robertson, descended through Dr. Peyton Robertson, was dressed in Scottish-plaid kilts and pulled the string to unveil the towering monument honoring his great-great-grandfather. Among those offering memorial tributes to Nashville’s founder were Governor James B. Frazier and Mayor James Head.
“History often repeats itself,” wrote Kelley. “On June 28, 1972, the descendants of James Robertson gathered once again in Nashville to celebrate Tennessee’s ‘James Robertson Day’ proclaimed by Governor Winfield Dunn.” Among the descendants gathered around the Robertson Monument in Centennial Park was the same Dickson Wharton Robertson who had participated in the monument’s unveiling 69 years earlier.
As the Robertson Monument approaches its centenary, the 107-year-old shaft has weathered well, as have the 100-year-old base and four bronze plaques. Attesting to the passage of a century is that the massive base appears to have sunk several feet into the earth since 1903. Without measured drawings to provide dimensions of the original base, however, a definitive conclusion cannot be made. Thus we celebrate the founding of Nashville with the hope that Centennial Park’s terra firma will continue to support the city’s monument to its founder, so that future Nashvillians may enjoy a bicentennial celebration of the Robertson Monument.
Winning of the West, Volume II: From the Alleghanies to the Mississippi, 1777-1783, by Theodore Roosevelt (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1889).
Tennessee Old and New, Sesquicentennial Edition, 1796-1946, Volumes I and II (Nashville: Tennessee Historical Commission and Tennessee Historical Society, 1946).
Seedtime on the Cumberland, by Harriette Simpson Arnow (New York: The Macmillian Company, 1960).
Building of Nashville, by Wilbur Foster Creighton; revised and enlarged by Wilbur F. Creighton, Jr., and Leland R. Johnson (Nashville: Wilbur F. Creighton, Jr., and Elizabeth Creighton Schumann, 1969).
Children of Nashville: Lineages of James Robertson, by Sarah Foster Kelley (Nashville: Blue and Gray Press, 1973).
Our Ancestors Were Engineers, by Arthur Weir Crouch and Harry Dixon Claybrook (Nashville: Nashville Section of American Society of Civil Engineers, 1976).
The Parks of Nashville: A History of the Board of Parks and Recreation, by Leland R. Johnson (Nashville: Metropolitan Nashville and Davidson County Board of Parks and Recreation, 1986).
Andrew Jackson Slept Here: A Guide to Historical Markers in Nashville and Davidson County (Nashville: Metropolitan Historical Commission of Nashville and Davidson County, 1993).